The Iceberg

Nothing slows down the plot more quickly than the information dump. Did you ever find yourself in a conversation with someone when you suddenly realize you have no idea what he just said and you find that you no longer even care? He just dumped a whole lot of meaningless information on you as you waited patiently for him to get to the point. A friend of mine would say, in this situation, “Could you please just land the plane.” What he wants is something to keep him interested, something to make him want to keep listening.
This is a typical mistake new writers make according to James Scott Bell, when beginning their novels.
To avoid boring the readers with too much exposition, and losing their interest in the novel- especially in the beginning of the story where it is vital to “hook the reader”, Mr. Bell suggests to “do the iceberg”. He tells us “Don’t tell us everything about the character’s past history or current situation. Give us the 10 percent above the surface that is necessary to understand what’s going on, and leave 90 percent hidden and mysterious below the surface. Later in the story, you can reveal more of that information. Until the right time, however; withhold it.”
This is only one of several rules he has, however; this one stood out to me as a rule I would use both in my writing and in my daily life. As a reader, wondering why a character feels the way she does or acts the way she acts is a big part of what compels me to keep reading. As the author drops one piece of information at a time that slowly paints a picture of the character’s motivations, we can not help but yearn to see the finished product at the end. What caused this character to carry so much guilt? What makes her want to move away from her family and friends? What happened that made him pick up the gun and shoot his best friend? These answers lie beneath the surface of the story, beneath the water- too deep for us to see anything yet. All we can see so far is the tip of the iceberg, until little by little the sea level subsides revealing a larger piece of the ice as it does.
If the reader is given too much information too soon, what reason would she have to continue reading. In Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s “The Language of Flowers” we are introduced to the protagonist Victoria when she is 18 years old. Immediately, on the first page she alludes to something that happened when she was 10 years old, something bad. But we are not told what it was until much later in the story when we are so hooked that nothing or no one can pry us away from the book. And when we are finally let in on the big secret after having been fed little bits and pieces along the way like bread crumbs along a trail, we are so emotionally connected to the story and the character that we could never imagine anyone landing that plane even a second sooner.
By revealing only the tip of the iceberg until the time is right, we keep our readers in suspense wondering about the hidden part below the surface. And then once they’ve been prepared enough, we hit them with the other 90% that they could not see – knocking them over with its full strength.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s